Is Jason Heyward's Resurgence for Real?
He hit 18 home runs that year with a slash line of .277/.393/.456, totaling 83 runs scored, 72 RBI, 11 stolen bases, a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .377 and a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 134. Two years later, he had a career-best power season in which he blasted 27 homers with 93 runs, 82 RBI and 21 runs scored with a career-high slugging percentage of .479.
That was the season he showed the power potential in his bat, but he has been unable to unlock it again since then.
He has, however, been a defensive whiz in right field over the last few years, coupled with an above-average bat. From 2011 to 2015, Heyward averaged 4.6 fWAR, with peaks of 6.5 in 2012 and 6.0 in 2015, his one and only season with the St. Louis Cardinals, even though he averaged just 12.7 bombs per year from 2013 to 2015.
It was his combination of youth, defense and reasonable offense that drove the Chicago Cubs to sign the then-26-year-old to an eight-year, $184 million deal with the hope his power would return as he entered his prime.
Unfortunately for Heyward and the Cubs, he suffered his worst season as a pro last year, putting up a career-worst fWAR of 1.6 thanks to an abysmal .230/.306/.325 slash line. He hit a mere 7 home runs in 592 plate appearances, finishing with a wOBA of only .282 and a ghastly wRC+ of 72 (league average is scaled to 100).
Heyward was benched at times during the Cubs' postseason run amidst the worst slump of his career, and it was safe to wonder if he was going to be a bust free-agent signing.
But there is reason to believe his 2017 is going to be very different.
Jason Heyward has 10 RBI in his last four games.
And three of these: pic.twitter.com/er2wXItgH8
â€” Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) April 24, 2017
Heyward already has 3 dingers this season, a much better pace than he has shown over the last few years.
Date of Jason Heyward's third homer of year:
â€” MLB Statistics (@MLBRandomStats) April 24, 2017
Heyward appears to have found his swing -- or a new swing -- and the results are beginning to manifest themselves.
Jason Heyward, 2016: 7 HRs, .230/.306/.325, 1.5 WAR
Jason Heyward, 2017: 3 HRs, .294/.342/.456, 0.8 WARhttps://t.co/NOOc5agfod #Cubs pic.twitter.com/MnCpET3ueX
â€” Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) April 25, 2017
His 16 RBI are the most in a calendar month for him since he drove in 17 runs back in August of 2012. He's also putting up a .347 wOBA and wRC+ of 117, numbers that are a huge improvement over last year's figures (.282 wOBA, 72 wRC+).
Heyward is pulling the ball more this year than in past seasons, with 49.1% of his batted balls going to the pull side, up from last year's 40.7% clip and above his career mark of 42.2% -- although it's also interesting he's killing balls on the outer half of the plate, too.
It's also clear Heyward has been more aggressive. His 5.5% walk rate is the lowest of his career, and his swing rate at pitches over the plate (Z-Swing%) has jumped in a huge way, from 60.0% last year to 72.9% this year.
His struggles of 2016 appear to have impacted how pitchers are approaching him now, throwing him a first-pitch strike 67.1% of the time, far higher than the 55.1% he saw last season and far above his career mark of 53.8%. That accounts for his decrease in walks, as well. He's also generally swinging the bat more this season, up from 41.3% last season to 48.1% this year.
Heyward's new swing was a big story in spring training, but it's unclear how much that new swing is helping him right now. Whatever the reason, he's looked like the 2012 version of himself, which, if it continues, would make him a 6- to 7-win player -- certainly worth the hefty free-agent contract he was given last season. And it would also make the already great Cubs' lineup even scarier.